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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Invasive Species by Wendy Peterman, PhD

Trees in San Diego range from wild, alien species, straight out of a Dr. Seuss book to the dwarfed, twisting bodies of the endangered Torrey pines. Since most of the land is haphazardly developed into sprawling shopping malls and mini-mansions, it takes a special effort to visit trees in botanical gardens, nature preserves, and the occasional canyon left wild for a picturesque view with a high price tag.

Eucalyptus or “red gum” trees were brought to San Diego by investors, hoping to get rich in the shipbuilding industry. The warping, cracking lumber proved a dismal building material, and the trees have become weeds in the eyes of ecologists, high-oil fuel in the eyes of firefighters, and beloved ornamentals in the eyes of residents. Infested by a pest called the “lerp,” many are dying and falling on homes or presenting an even greater fire hazard. In the past, the city brought in genetically engineered wasps that ate only lerps in an attempt to eradicate the insects. In recent years, controversial clear-cutting has been a hot topic in the news.

Like the eucalyptus, I was a transplant to those warm, balmy shores of the Pacific just north of Mexico in the mid-1990s. Being out of my native habitat, I also felt unnatural in a world of concrete, stucco, and glass. Although I lived near the beach at first, the view of the ocean was entirely blocked by buildings, so I walked two miles each way every day, pushing my daughter in her purple jogging stroller, in order to visit the rugged, sandy cliffs with their patches of scraggly pines.

One day, homesick for real forests, I looked at the horizon and saw the tops of eucalyptus trees blowing in the warm breeze. When my spouse got home, I asked, “ What is the place east of here, at the end of that long road?” They didn’t know. That weekend, I asked to drive over there and was delighted to find a hilly neighborhood with groves of eucalyptus trees in the canyons between mesas. “We’re moving here,” I announced. Several months later, we did.

It was a gorgeous place and time. The weather was always perfect. We had a huge picture window with an incredible view and a series of canyons linked with hiking trails to wander on my own. There was a lake nearby where we could ride our bikes or rollerblade, and the neighborhood was full of children to entertain my daughter. I became close friends with the woman in the townhouse next door, even though she had sworn never to like me. My spouse, who had been a childhood friend, was the kindest person I knew outside of my grandmother, and they were a wonderful step-parent to my daughter. They were the first person in my life who told me I could let go of what other people wanted or expected and think about what I really wanted to do. I nearly imploded.

Did I want to rekindle my childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician? No. Living near UC San Diego Medical school, I saw the med students in the store, buying cigarettes and alcohol by the case and explaining to the cashier that they had the highest-stress career path in the country. Besides, I was the kind of person who wouldn’t even take Ibuprofen for a headache. Maybe I wanted to become an Anthropologist and travel the world documenting other cultures.

What about Dance? It was never considered a “real” job by my family. I wasn’t young or thin or petite.

I had started teaching Modern Dance at the university recreation center, after an intense bout of endometriosis, masquerading to the inexperienced as ovarian cancer, had left me bedridden and in excruciating pain for a few months. Lying in that bed, I asked myself what I would do if I could get up, and the immediate response was “dance.” I went over to the recreation center at UCSD and asked to sign up for their beginning Modern Dance class. They apologized that they wouldn’t be able to offer the class because the teacher had suddenly moved away. “What does it take to teach it?” I asked. “What do ya got?” they asked. I went home and emailed them a resume, they called me in for an interview, and I got the job. I had never taught dance before and felt like I would quickly run out of material that I could remember from my dance classes in Northern California.

One day, I went to San Diego State, intending to visit the Anthropology department and speak with an advisor about going back to school, still with the idea that I might head into medicine or some sort of healing art after finishing a BA. I walked across campus. The Anthro department was on the left. The Dance department was on the right. With absolutely no warning, my body turned right and marched itself directly into the Dance department, and signed up for a BA in Dance. It was an uncharacteristically spontaneous and self-indulgent act that led to four years of hard work, pain, constant criticism of my body, breath, and facial expressions, and totally awesome art and enduring friendships.

My favorite dance was one I created for my senior concert titled, “Preserving the Ancients.” The piece was about missing my home with its foggy beaches, graceful marine life, and tenacious mountain folk, living amongst the giant trees. It started with a few movements created by my dance teacher at Mendocino College. I asked her if I could use them and expand on them for a dance piece. She didn’t even remember them and gave me full reign to adopt them.

I collaborated with a professor at San Diego State University who taught the “Music and Technology” course. His process was to have the students discover and evolve music, using found objects from their surroundings. We decided to “find” and evolve music and dance simultaneously through improvisation. The grand finale was a Modern dance piece where I conducted the “Neolithic Orchestra” in a score that began with the sound of Pop Rocks in a microphone and wiggling pieces of sheet metal to simulate a rainstorm over the Pacific Ocean. Gradually, rhythms grew and morphed until there was a cacophony of sound to accompany a frenzy of movement and intense red lights like a bonfire, ending in sudden darkness and silence.

My dance teacher from Northern California asked me to recreate it with her dance company as part of a project she was doing with Northwest Native American groups about the struggle to preserve their own heritage. I showed the piece to the tribes to see if they approved of using the piece. Fortunately, they found it highly relatable. A native woman who danced in it reflected that it had a familiar sense of wistful longing and grief over lost traditions and a beloved way of life. She said in dancing it, she had a feeling of a mother, saying goodbye to children who were walking away from their heritage. I was deeply honored and saddened to have this experience in common with my native friends.

Dance concerts are a momentary experience for the audience, who may or may not have a profound experience of the art presented. For dancers and choreographers, however, there are months of rehearsals, sore muscles, relationships deepened by strain and mutual support, and nights interrupted by creative outbursts that must be explored and recorded before they are forever lost to the ether. Lessons are learned. Bones are broken and tendons ruptured. Feelings are hurt and mended. Minds are changed and hearts are expanded. The final product is a gift of the soul through the intense focus of every cell in our bodies. After a show ended, I always had a period of “postpartum depression.” The constant focus, creative inspiration, and intense problem solving were gone, and the art would never be there again in exactly the same way. It was a huge practice in embracing impermanence, maybe like the lamas who create intricate mandalas with colorful sand, only to sweep it away at completion.

At the end of my epic journey to my dance degree, I felt a deep need to connect with the divine. Years of separation from the church of my youth had left me feeling stuck in my mind with dance as the only outlet for my soul. Anyone who asked what I would do once school ended got the answer, “I’m going on a journey of the spirit. I don’t know what that means yet, which is the point.” For graduation, I received a stack of books on Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and self-realization, which led to a decade of counting breaths and drops of water, chanting mantras and reciting kirtan, yoga classes, walking meditation, and ecstatic dance. All of the reading, traveling, chanting, seeking, and striving led me to the message “Be Here Now.” Regardless of the belief system or structure, mindfulness and presence in this moment is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

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